The mngwa (Swahili: "strange one") or nunda (Swahili: "fierce animal," "cruel man," or "something heavy") is a cryptid felid reported from Tanzania's coastal forests, described as a large, grey, man-eating cat with brindled stripes. Like its fellow East African maneater the Nandi bear, it caused a general hysteria in the regions it attacked, and was the quarry of several European hunts, all of which failed to catch it.
The mngwa is said to be as big as the biggest lions, with greyish fur and brindled tabby-like stripes and markings. It is readily distinguished from the lion and the leopard by locals, and its tracks are said to resemble a leopards, but are the size of a lions. According to some eyewitnesses, it purrs instead of roaring.
The nunda also appears in the traditional Swahili folktale "Sultan Majnun". In this tale, a cat belonging to the Sultan begins killing domestic animals and eventually people, including three of the Sultan's sons, before turning into a nunda. The fourth son hunts down the nunda, and (after killing a dog, two types of civet, a zebra, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, and an elephant) is led by his slaves to the animal, which is asleep under a tree. It is the size of a donkey, with brindled fur, huge claws, and enormous teeth.
Patrick Bowen and another hunter investigated a village where a mngwa had carried off a little boy, and followed its spoor into the forest. At first Bowen assumed the culprit was a lion, but when the tracks crossed some hard, wet sand, making them exceptionally clear, it was obvious that they had not been made by a lion: they appeared to be the tracks of a leopard, but were the size of a lion's. Some brindled hairs found on the stakes where the mngwa had forced its way into the kraal were also different from the hair of a leopard.
A series of alleged mngwa attacks occurred in the village of Lindi, Tanganyika, in 1922, when Captain William Hichens was Native Magistrate. As recounted by Hichens:
Hichens was puzzling over the problem the next morning when the Arab governor of the district arrived "with two scared-looking men at his heels". The men claimed that:
The old Arab governor assured Hichens that the mngwa, which he described, had visited Lindi several times in his memory. That night, Hichens kept watch with two armed askaris at the market, but nothing happened, so at the next day's parade he read the native constables "a lecture on the stupidity of superstitions".
However, that night another constable was killed, and he too "clutched in his hands and scattered about the buckles of his uniform was more of that grey, matted fur". Whilst the terrified villagers paid a medicine man to scare off the mngwa, Hichens sent the fur off for expert examination, but the only reply he received was that it was "probably cat".
Several more attacks occurred at other small coastal villages over the following month, and a number of people arrived at Lindi to inform Hichens that "a huge grey-striped animal like a cat, but as big as a donkey, was seizing men by night". Although traps and poison were set and armed police were posted around the district, the animal was never caught, and eventually the attacks ended as suddenly as they had begun.
During the 1930's, another series of alleged mngwa killings occurred in Hichens' district. One survivor of a mngwa attack, an old and skilled native hunter, was brought to Hichens at Mchinga:
Investigators at the time of the mngwa's killings ruled out lions and leopards as suspects on account of the mngwa's tracks, hair, and size. However, Karl Shuker suggests that the mngwa could conceivably have been a very large, aberrantly-patterned leopard, explaining why its footprints resemble those of a gigantic leopard. Bernard Heuvelmans argued against this possibility, writing that it was difficult to imagine how even a genetic abnormality could turn the plain coat of a lion or the spotted coat of a leopard into the brindled grey coat of the mngwa.
Giant African golden cat
Bernard Heuvelmans theorised that the mngwa could have been an undiscovered giant species of the African golden cat (Caracal aurata). Although a normal golden cat only measures up to 4'5'' in length, they display a wide variety of coat colours and patterns: "ts pelage can vary in colour from gold, through a wide range of reds, browns, and greys, to a melanistic all-black form, and superimposed upon this diverse range of background colours there can sometimes be an equally broad spectrum of dark spotted patterns too".
Although it isn't very large, even the regular African golden cat inspires fear and superstition throughout its range, as it is reputed to be extremely savage and bloodthirsty. Additionally, some eyewitnesses claimed that the mngwa does not roar, but purrs like a domestic cat. Whilst lions and leopards cannot purr, the throat structure of the African golden cat means that it does purr instead of roar.
According to Mel and Fiona Sunquist, at around the same time that the mngwa was carrying out its attacks, societies of witch-doctors known as mjobo or "lion men" in Tanganyika's Singida area "ran a lucrative extortion business in the early twentieth century by threatening to turn themselves into lions and kill people who did not pay them. Many people were murdered by young men dressed as lions, wearing lion paws as gloves on their hands and feet".
Karl Shuker speculates that the killings which occurred during Hichens' tenure could also have been the work of the mjobo, who could have faked the tracks, and placed clumps of grey fur from any animal in the hands of their victims. Shuker feels that this is the most plausible theory regarding the killings.
Notes and references
- Heuvelmans, Bernard & Rivera, Jean-Luc & Barloy, Jean-Jacques (2007) Les Félins Encore Inconnus d’Afrique, Les Editions de l'Oeil du Sphinx, ISBN 978-2914405430
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Hichens, William "On the Trail of the Brontosaurus: Encounters with Africa's Mystery Animals" Chamber's Journal (1927)
- Shuker, Karl P. N. (1989) Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts, Robert Hale, ISBN 0-7090-3706-6
- Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: NUNDA - IN SEARCH OF THE STRANGE ONE karlshuker.blogspot.com [Accessed April 2019]
- Steere, Edward (1870) Swahili Tales
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge, ISBN 978-1138977525
- Lane, Frank W. (1955) Nature Parade
- Hichens, William, "African Mystery Beasts" Discovery 18 (1937)
- Sunquist, Mel & Sunquist, Fiona (2002) Wild Cats of the World